Reclaiming the Spirit of the IEP

Three party hats sit on a white background.

The brilliant idea that a student’s gifts, abilities, and needs should be regularly understood, identified, and supported is simply common sense—and best practice. I believe that this was the original intent behind IEPs. “Let’s get to know this student and discover what she/he can do and what reliable supports are needed.” The intent was that simple and that profound!

And yet IEP meetings can be clouded by worry, lack of trust, too many forms, and way too much jargon.

How do we reclaim the profound purpose of IEPs? How do we restore a sense that IEP meetings can be an opportunity for creativity, compassion, and conversation—or as one educator said, “How can we make IEP meetings feel like a ‘party with a purpose’?”

Our family has years of thinking about these issues. Our 32-year-old adult son, Micah Fialka Feldman, who has an intellectual disability, was the first student to be fully included in his elementary and secondary schools, and later in his college. The stacks of saved IEPs easily fill three drawers of the old metal file cabinet in our basement. Our daughter, Emma Fialka Feldman, is a second-grade full inclusion teacher in the Boston Public Schools and has been a team member of numerous IEP meetings. Together, we offer two ideas to reclaim the intended spirit of IEPs.

First Suggestion: Use our IEP One-Pager Planning Tool.

We developed a one-page planning tool (click here) that is fairly jargon-free and visually interesting with three or four photos of the student in action. The photos of the student can be placed at the top of the page or scattered about. The five categories listed on the page are:

2-3 things (student) can do independently

2-3 things she/he is beginning to do

2-3 things she/he can do with supports

2-3 key accommodations used

2-3 areas of focus

The goal is to succinctly write specific examples under each category. These categories guide the teacher as he or she prepares for the meeting and reviews the student’s work and experiences. A blank copy of the IEP One-Pager can be shared with families and students prior to the meeting with encouragement to think about their responses.

During IEP meetings, the IEP One-Pager can guide conversations with attention paid to each category and reference to the photos. As students and their families share responses, the tone of the meetings will shift from report language to rapport language, which focuses more on conversation and sharing and less on tackling the form.

The emphasis of the meetings shifts from fixing and curing to “what is the growth?” and how to continue supporting that growth. Later on, when the legal and many-paged IEP form is used, the One-Pager is an easy reference guide, especially when clarity and conciseness is needed.

The feedback from families and educators who are using the IEP One-Pager is very positive. One family indicated they enjoyed posting the completed IEP-One Pager on their refrigerator, as a guide and celebration!

No form alone can result in better communication. Listening, without rushing to solutions, is a key ingredient to strengthening communication and trust, but the right tool can help build a sturdier partnership among educators, students, and families.

Second Suggestion: Involve the student with the disability and their peers at the IEP and pre-planning meetings.

With the full permission and comfort of the student with the disability, peers can be a wonderful support to prepare and participate in the IEP meeting.

Beginning in sixth grade and with the support of his teacher, Micah invited a couple of his friends to help him think about what he had accomplished during the year, what he liked learning, what helped him learn, and what skills he wanted to strengthen. Together, they discussed these areas and then created a simple PowerPoint presentation with photos for the IEP meetings. The youth brought renewed energy, honesty, and enthusiasm to meetings, along with innovative and unique ideas.

One meeting explored the issue of Micah disrupting the class. One of his friends explained that Micah was not alone in sometimes feeling bored in the class. The friend surmised that the real issue was that Micah did not know how to “fake paying attention” the way most of the other students did. The team chuckled, maybe a bit nervously! The solution, easily identified by Micah’s peers, was right on target. “We are going to help Micah learn how to fake paying attention.” Turning to him, they instructed, “Micah, when you feel bored, you gotta make eye contact with the teacher and periodically nod your head.” And indeed, Micah learned this strategy—one that most of us use daily! (Other issues of instructional methods were discussed, but now in the context of real-world ways of handling “boring” moments.)

At another meeting, one of Micah’s friends shared that he thought the paraprofessional was doing too much of the work for Micah and that his friends could be more involved in supporting him or nudging him to complete the work. Although Micah liked the paraprofessional, he really liked the idea of having his friends more involved.

Youth often have the most authentic understanding of what is happening in and outside of the classroom. We miss an opportunity to learn from them when we do not involve them, and we strengthen their sense of camaraderie and community when we invite them to participate.


You may not wear party hats to your next IEP meeting, but you can find creative ways to rekindle the authentic spirit of IEPs and their meetings. Our family offers these two suggestions based on years of experience. Ask your IEP team to try our IEP One-Pager Planning Tool and invite your student with disabilities and a few peers to plan and participate in the meeting. And if wearing a party hat seems too silly, there is nothing wrong with bringing a party treat to the meeting. In our home, after so many meetings and treats, we have actually renamed brownies. They are now and forever only referred to as IEP-brownies! Humor helps too!

– Janice Fialka

Image of blog author.Sometime poet, always learning. Social Worker, author, activist, mother, feminist, wife, Working in community to create a world where everyone’s gifts are respected and folks get their needs met. National speaker on issues related to disability, inclusion, and relationship building between families and professionals.